Park Playhouse ‘Head Over Heels’ for Go-Go Musical

One of the posters for “Head Over Heels,” this summer’s Park Playhouse production, explains that the show uses the music of 1980s girl group The Go-Go’s in the retelling of the tragicomic Elizabethan romance “Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney.

“Yes,” the poster adds, “you read that right.” “Head Over Heels” runs Tuesday through Saturday nights from June 30 through July 23 in Washington Park in Albany.

“It was the most amazing piece I’ve ever seen,” said Owen Smith, artistic director and producer since 2010 of Playhouse Stage Company, Park Playhouse’s parent organization. He said, “To see how the 16th-century text fit with the music of The Go-Go’s, when they had nothing to do with each other, was amazing.” Some of The Go-Go’s hits include the show opener “We Got the Beat”, “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed” and the title number.

Smith added, “I think this is the most vibrant show we’ve ever produced, certainly in my tenure and maybe ever.” Park Playhouse is now in its 34th season.

While the six-month Broadway production of “Head Over Heels” from July 2018 drew visual inspiration from the period source material, Smith and director Michael LoPorto, who returns for his 14th summer production for Park Playhouse, encouraged their design team to incorporate the lively, 1980s pop-meet-punk aesthetic of The Go-Go’s. Samuel Reilly’s set evokes an amusement park, Zahra Jangbar’s costumes explore what happens when punk-rock attire meets Elizabethan haute couture, and Alena Samoray’s lighting “is just wild” , Smith said. “Everything is so colorful.”

“Head Over Heels” was originally conceived and written by Jeff Whitty, who won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Book by a Musical for “Avenue Q.” After the original production of “Head Over Heels” performed in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival but before it moved to Broadway, Whitty parted ways with the show and Jeff Magruder (“Triumph of Love”) adapted Whitty’s book .

Like the Sidney original, the story follows the king and queen of a land called Arcadia, their two daughters, and what happens when an oracle delivers four prophecies that, if true, would fundamentally alter the world. Idyllic Arcadia. The stubborn king, believing he knows better than the women in his life, sets out to ensure that the oracle’s predictions remain unfulfilled, with calamitous results.

In a first for Playhouse Stage Company, a central role, that of Pythio the Oracle, is portrayed in the script as non-binary, and Smith and LoPorto were determined to cast an actor who identifies as non-binary. The role was won by Ellie Frances, who uses the pronouns them/them and has been a non-binary actor-singer for three years. This is the first time Frances has played a character explicitly defined as non-binary, they said.

“It’s so liberating that the show is saying, ‘We’re just going to say this very factually and then move on, without having to say it over and over again,'” Frances said.

“In five lines, it’s clear that (Pythio is) non-binary,” Smith said. This confuses the king. Smith said: “He even says, ‘Things have to be one way or the other. The rigidity of his thinking is also evident in his way of governing, and much of the ignorance and bigotry in the world comes from such rigidity, from the refusal to accept a new or different idea.”

For LoPorto, “The Go-Go’s music videos were the ones I recorded on TV. It was our YouTube,” he said, adding, “The 80s music scene has a reputation for be so plastic and superficial, but The Go-Go’s were part of an underground scene that led to the alternative music explosions of the early 90s. It didn’t come out of nowhere.

In a different, alternative sense, Smith, LoPorto and Frances all said, “Head Over Heels” is also informed by a queer sensibility and the camp factor of its comedy.

“It’s a very funny piece, but we’ve all come to see it as a deeply heartfelt story about some pretty important ideas, (including) the importance of being yourself, of not automatically accepting what ‘you’re told to be, of really shaping the you (that) you want to be,” LoPorto said. “It’s definitely a weird idea.”

Frances said that even though they had never been to Albany, or anywhere else in the state away from New York, Playhouse Stage casting announcements and conversations with Smith and LoPorto convinced them they would encounter an atmosphere welcoming.

“The cast has been amazing to work with,” Frances said. “It was very rewarding to be in the (rehearsal) room with them.”

Smith said he has yet to hear any objections or criticisms of the free summer theater in a city park featuring a non-binary character in a story that includes same-sex couples.

“People may have outright beliefs that make them think it’s wrong or inappropriate. I would tell them, ‘You’re free not to come,'” Smith said.

“But,” he said, “to the extent that theater has the potential to change hearts and minds, I would say, ‘Come see it and open your mind. You might find your heart softened. That’s the reason to do a show like this.”

“Crazy in Love”

When: 8 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday, from June 30 to July 23
Where: Playhouse Stage Company at Park Playhouse, Washington Park amphitheater, Madison Avenue at New Scotland Avenue, Albany
Tickets: Reserved seats, $25 to $35; hillside seats, free
information: 518-434-0776 and